Michael Houston

A friend of mine recently sent me a tweet of my first memory of professional wrestling - a swinging Jeff Hardy speared 20 feet above the ring at WrestleMania X-Seven, a moment that hooked me into the predetermined, theatrical entertainment.

Twenty years on, WrestleMania X-Seven is still regarded as one of the best professional wrestling shows of all time, showcasing some of the best features of the industry, including technical wrestling.

On that card was arguably the most famous Olympic wrestler in the world, Kurt Angle.

Angle had risen to prominence at the Atlanta 1996 Olympics, when he won the men's 100-kilogram freestyle wrestling title on a points decision against Iran's Abbas Jadidi.

Jadidi had not long returned from a doping ban, but that was not the reason this win was so memorable - it was because Angle won the Olympic gold medal with a "broken freakin' neck", as would later become his catchphrase. 

Angle severely damaged his neck at United States Olympic trials, but managed to deal with the pain to win gold.

Kurt Angle is one of the most famous Olympic wrestlers in history ©Getty Images
Kurt Angle is one of the most famous Olympic wrestlers in history ©Getty Images

This feat would lead to World Wrestling Federation chairman Vince McMahon offering the Pittsburgh native a 10-year deal right after the Games, despite him never stepping foot in a professional wrestling ring before.

Although talks broke down, Angle would agree a five-year deal with the company - now World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) - in 1998 and by 2001 had improved to unprecedented levels and is still regarded as one of the fastest learners in the business. 

Without speculating on his worth, it is safe to say Angle is one of the richest professional wrestlers in the world, despite retiring recently.

Butterfly effect theorists could argue that if Jadidi had been given the nod in that final, Angle would have merely been a footnote in Olympic wrestling trivia and never have been courted by McMahon.

Which raises the question, how valuable are the Olympics to an athlete's profile?

Angle said in an interview with the wonderfully-named BANG Showbiz that nothing mattered until he was an Olympian.

"I won the World Championships in 1995, and nobody heard about it," Angle claimed. 

"In amateur wrestling, that’s just as big as winning an Olympic gold medal. 

"It doesn't mean nearly as much, because the Olympics is the pinnacle of sport. 

"So, the value of Kurt Angle and my brand went up when I won the Olympics."

Although Olympic success will boost your commercial value, wrestling is still a difficult sport to make a career in.

A cautionary tale that comes to mind is that of brothers Dave and Mark Schultz, who both won gold at the Los Angeles 1984 Games for the US.

Dave Schultz was murdered in 1996 by John du Pont, who paid wrestlers to train at Foxcatcher Farm ©Getty Images
Dave Schultz was murdered in 1996 by John du Pont, who paid wrestlers to train at Foxcatcher Farm ©Getty Images

During a period of financial insecurity in the sport, Mark Schultz turned to millionaire philanthropist John du Pont, who created a state-of-the-art wrestling facility called Foxcatcher Farm.

There he gave Olympic hopefuls a place to stay and train, with Schultz qualifying for Seoul 1988 while training at the facility.

Leaving shortly after the Games, brother Dave Schultz was brought in as a coach in 1989 and looked at a return to the Olympics at Atlanta 1996, before he was shot and killed that year by Du Pont, who was showing increasingly erratic behaviour. A court later found Du Pont guilty of third-degree murder but mentally ill, and he died in prison in 2010.

Bringing it full circle, Angle was one of those at the facility at the time who then faced insecurity heading into the Games in the absence of Du Pont, only to be supported by Dave Schultz's widow Nancy for the final stages of Olympic preparation.

One of his protégés was the famous mixed martial artist Ronda Rousey - best known for her time in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).

In 2012, Rousey became the first female fighter to sign with the UFC, but not all are aware of her judo career. 

A Pan American Games champion and world silver medallist, Rousey cemented her position as a decorated martial artist after winning bronze in the women's under-70kg at Beijing 2008, making her the first American woman to win an Olympic medal in the sport.

Ronda Rousey, in blue, is an Olympic judo medallist but far more famous for later endeavors  ©Getty Images
Ronda Rousey, in blue, is an Olympic judo medallist but far more famous for later endeavors ©Getty Images

Her style translated well to mixed martial arts, with judo coaches regarding her as a "brawler" rather than adopting the traditional Japanese style of the sport.

She retired from judo at just 21 years of age.

Wrestling and judo face challenges to keep their best stars from leaving for MMA, with the latest defector appearing to be Rio 2016 Olympic judo gold medallist Rafaela Silva - perhaps nudged in that direction by a doping ban.

After she turned professional, boxing has also lost double Olympic gold medallist Claressa Shields to the Professional Fighters League, although Shields still boxings professionally as well.

Fittingly, WrestleMania returns this weekend for a 37th edition and over the past week, WWE looks to have unofficially announced its latest signing.

Standing in the crowd at a show on Thursday (April 8) was Gable Steveson, a 20-year-old wrestler with a 67-2 collegiate record, a 24-0 cadet record, a 25-1 junior record and 25-6 senior record.

The American is a two-time cadet and one-time junior world champion, as well as the 2021 National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) wrestling champion.

Most importantly, Steveson is seemingly eying up the switch ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, which he qualified for last week at the US trials in Pennsylvania.

In this case, the Olympics was not necessary for Steveson to turn heads - he has already achieved that. 

However, he could be the latest star to leave the sport for a more profitable lifestyle, despite his potential to be one of the best in the world.

Steveson seems to have the next chapter in his journey planned out, but an Olympic medal would further add to his prestige before bowing out of the sport.

Gable Steveson qualified for Tokyo 2020 earlier this month ©Getty Images
Gable Steveson qualified for Tokyo 2020 earlier this month ©Getty Images

Olympic wrestling may not be the most profitable sport at the Games for athletes, but it certainly provides opportunities beyond punditry, commentating or the humble columnist position. 

As expected, Steveson is being compared to fellow Minnesotan NCAA wrestling champion Brock Lesnar who forged a career in professional wrestling and MMA - the difference is, Lesnar left the sport before having a chance to excel on the world stage.

Steveson could emulate the Olympic success of Angle and if he does so, it will undoubtedly be his crowning achievement, even with his career ambitions to work in entertainment as an actor.

Despite his athletic prowess, Angle is now better known for being one of the most famous entertainers in history.

Yet, it all comes back to that Olympic gold medal which he called his greatest achievement.

"It defined my career," he said.

"It defined my life."

Even if the Olympics is a stepping stone to greater things for combat-sport athletes, nothing will replace standing on that podium - like Angle, like Shields, like Rousey.